Science Solitaire

[Science Solitaire] How is your forgettery?

Maria Isabel Garcia

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[Science Solitaire] How is your forgettery?

David Castuciano

What we forget is part of who we are

How much of who you are is what you forget? 

We intuitively think that who we are is what we remember about ourselves but the science of forgetting tells us that forgetting is a critical part of what powers “attention.”  And since what we “polish with our attention is a mirror to our soul” (as Maria Popova so eloquently conjures), what we forget is part of who we are.  This means that your kingdom of memory co-exists with your shadow kingdom of “forgettery.” (I did not make that word up. It is as real as “memory.”) And it is as critical to who we are and how we live. 

A recent study gave us an image of what remembering and forgetting looks like in a brain. Researchers saw that when a zebrafish (they are transparent fish so they are favorite creatures to study as you can see what happens inside its body and brain when you do something to it) learned something, the ends of their neurons become very active but in this same process, a dimming of some ends of neurons also happens as if they are giving way for a new thing to be remembered. Remembering and forgetting happens at the same time – like yin and yang in a dance. 

Another recent study on the brain on another favorite science experiment creature, C. elegans (worm) also showed that “forgetting” does not look the same as “absence of previous information” but an altogether distinct state in the brain. Even more, the study found that whatever is “dimmed” could be resurrected, which can be either good or bad news depending on the content of that forgotten memory is.

Even if these studies were on the brains of a zebrafish and worms, there is good reason to believe, given what we basically know about how brain cells are activated across species, this might be, at least, part of how and why humans forget. 

On average, each of us is exposed to about 74 gigabytes (the equivalent of about 44,000 photos taken by a 5-megapixel camera in standard resolution) of information a day. It was lot less, of course, in any of the earlier times, in the entire course that we as a species, humans, have been around since 200,000 years ago. But regardless, not every single thing needed to be remembered. 

Human brains may be a vessel for a stupendous amount of stuff BUT it only has a limited capacity to make sense of all that so in order to actually come up with a decision on anything, it has to remember what it thinks is important and ignore what it thinks is not. Otherwise, if we process each and every detail in all that 74 gigabytes and end up remembering every detail, we will have a meltdown. Our brains evolved to pay attention to things that if we retained, will help us survive. And in modern life now, also to help us make good decisions. 

But the thing is, even if we had 74 million cars in the city, they can only move depending on the roads available. It is the same with our brains. 

All that information we take in will have to go through a road system that can only pay attention to some but not all that. Scientists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Robert Lucky separately did an estimate and that road translates to an equivalent of a bandwidth of 120 bits per second. You need about half of that to pay attention to one person you are talking to so it is easy to imagine losing a lot when it comes to two people you are paying attention to at the same time. Now, imagine being in front of your digital screens and confronted by a universe of things coming at you at split second rates and your brain trying to figure out which is important and which is not. 

But studies like this have so far seen that for us to be able to remember or forget what we should, there has to be some time gap in between our exposure to relevant and non-important stuff. This is not happening in the click baits and rabbit holes of the internet that has us now at the click of our own fingers. 

But what was even more fascinating is that scientists saw how “creativity” is linked to “forgetting.” They found that the less sticky associations (i.e., we forget the rigid links) we have with certain objects or maybe even people, the more creative we can be. You can probably observe this in people who are caged in certain definitions in their specialized fields. They find it more difficult than others to relax those definitions when being applied to cross-disciplinary situations. 

But what has been also found out is that while learning wherever we are is our manufacturing habitat for “memory”, we also have a natural factory for “forgettery.” And that is “sleeping,” particularly “dreaming.”   Sleeping is nature’s free safe “forgettery” fix because of dreams. Dreams seem to loosen associations, thus giving us a new “state of mind” when we wake up. That is solid scientific reason for really “sleeping on it” when confounded by an intellectual or emotional challenge! 

And what about “forgive and forget?” With the science of forgetting, it would seem to me that there is no distinction between the two.  In this case, forgetting means to lose decouple anger or hate that eats away at you but the shadow lesson remains to remind you to stay away from that situation or person. That I think, requires not only an understanding of the science but also the art of forgetting, and most of all, a cultivation of deep humility. But once you get there, it certainly guarantees being unmoored from your unchangeable past. 

What will you line up for unmooring in your own forgettery today? –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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